“Gods are metaphors transparent to transcendence. And my understanding of the mythological mode is that deities and even people are to be understood in this sense, as metaphors…” ― Joseph Campbell
Are you among the 4 billion who mistake a metaphor for a fact? It is easy to do when you grow up and live in a culture where indoctrination in this myth is a way of life. How could we let such misinformation continue to dominate the cultural narrative of our modern world? Easy, it speaks to the power of the metaphor as the basis for a worldview.
What is a Metaphor?
A metaphor is a “figure of speech” that constructs an analogy between two or more things or ideas. When you understand the underlying premises are a metaphor, it is a valuable tool for comparison.
Many people understand that spiritual stories are metaphors. It’s a way of describing something in terms someone can relate to more easily. The story makes the lesson easy to remember. If you fail to understand that the story is a metaphor, you can mistake it for a factual occurrence. And this how the metaphor of God is mistaken for a fact. If you don’t realize the story or the imaginary being is a metaphor, you miss the meaning. Then you derive the wrong conclusions.
God as a Metaphor
To even think of God as a symbolic entity is a crime in some circles. God is the linchpin that holds mythology and superstition together. If you remove this pin, the whole worldview collapses.
“It’s a poetic understanding. It is to be understood in the same sense as Goethe’s words at the end of Faust: “Alles Vergängliche ist nur ein Gleichnis” (“Everything transitory is but a reference”). The reference is to that which transcends all speech, all vocabularies, and all images. I think of the more prosaic style of thinking about these references as theological rather than mythological.” ― Joseph Campbell
The perfect metaphor is flexible. So, deists use God as the answer or reason for everything. There may be other ways to explain the situation, but God is simpler.
The metaphor of God can hold any unknown. If something is good, God did it. If something is terrible, God allowed it, but it is beyond our “level of understanding.” God as a metaphor is the perfect thing to base the belief on other things for which there is no proof.
“Religions are, by definition, metaphors, after all: God is a dream, a hope, a woman, an ironist, a father, a city, a house of many rooms, a watchmaker who left his prize chronometer in the desert, someone who loves you—even, perhaps, against all evidence, a celestial being whose only interest is to make sure your football team, army, business, or marriage thrives, prospers, and triumphs over all opposition. Religions are places to stand and look and act, vantage points from which to view the world. So none of this is happening. Such things could not occur. Never a word of it is literally true.” ― Neil Gaiman, American Gods
There are proofs for the transcendence. Transcendence in the spiritual sense refers to an experience beyond the normal state of waking, dream, and sleeping. It has nothing to do with feelings.
There are forms of meditation that enable one to reach and experience the transcendent. The transcendent state of awareness is what some call the 4th state of consciousness. We can measure the 4th state by its effects on physiology. Japa or Transcendental meditation is one way to access this partition which underlies our awareness.
When someone meditates and reaches the transcendent state, we see lower heart rate changes and increases in brainwave coherence and skin resistance. These metabolic changes prove that the 4th state of consciousness differs from waking, dreaming, or sleeping. In this pure state of consciousness, one experiences a transcendence of our being absent from the internal dialogue.
Many influential teachers like Maharishi Mahesh Yogi describe the transcendence state as bliss consciousness because it silences internal chatter. But, if you have never had this experience, you mistake the metaphorical reference as a description of actual events or people. Thus, the metaphor is mistaken for a fact, and you create a religion out of this error.
Most Powerful Metaphor For The Transcendent
God becomes the perfect blueprint on which to attach anything unknown or misunderstood. It is a thing of power beyond our understanding. So, we can seek its divine intervention in times of need. We can blame it for natural disasters. It’s a catchall entity. Unfortunately, most people do not see God as a metaphor but as a factual entity.
“In theology, the god is taken as a final term, a kind of supernatural fact. When the deity is not transparent, when he doesn’t open up like that to the transcendent, he doesn’t open up to the mystery that is the mystery of our own lives”. ― Joseph Campbell
The error which causes this misunderstanding stems from misconstruing the metaphor for a fact. People make this mistake because they lack experience of transcendence. If you don’t understand something but want others to think you do, then you can make critical errors of common sense. When others follow, they believe the error as truth. They don’t understand the metaphor is a reference for the transcendent.
Metaphors Mistaken for a Fact
We hope this discussion provides food for thought. We want you to think about how your beliefs in a higher power shape your opinions and values. Do you see your higher power as a metaphor pointing the way to a more just and verdant behavior?
Do you believe in God existing in the literal sense? Perhaps not in this world, but at living on some plane of reality? Do you relate to the concept of a higher power as an actual person? Or do you understand this concept as a metaphor?
Many people believe in the existence of God as an actual person. Many people believe in God as a central part of their identity, and they want everyone else to have the same confidence in the same God. The “need to believe” is so powerful that it propels them to act violently toward others. But, if belief equaled fact, then all Gods would be real. Think about that.
Does God exist, or is it more probable that people are merely mistaking the metaphor as a fact? Is it more likely that there are thousands of Gods? No, it’s more likely that the stories of and about Gods are just reference points for more transcendent concepts of reality.
One thing is for sure, Approaching the Subject of a Higher Power is something that sparks deep emotional connections in many people. It is all possible because they start from a place where metaphor is mistaken for a fact.
“Heaven and hell are within us, and all the gods are within us. This is the great realization of the Upanishads of India in the ninth century B.C. All the gods, all the heavens, all the world, are within us. They are magnified dreams, and dreams are manifestations in image form of the energies of the body in conflict with each other. That is what myth is. Myth is a manifestation in symbolic images, in metaphorical images, of the energies of the organs of the body in conflict with each other. This organ wants this, that organ wants that. The brain is one of the organs.” ― Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth
The transcendence is hard to explain to those who have not experienced it. So, using god as a metaphor is a way to help them grasp the concept. The term God is an arbitrary reference for the transcendent.
If someone has not experienced the transcendent, it is hard for them to understand God as just a metaphor. It is an error of ignorance. Without practical knowledge of the transcendent, it is easy to mistake the “metaphor of God” for a fact.
Gods are metaphors that provide a focal point. It’s a way to express the attributes of creation and the human spirit in a story to make it more easily understood. For the transcendent to be understood, one must experience it first-hand.
Thank you for reading this article. We hope it provides some food for thought. You can find more mind-opening topics on our blog.
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(1) Joseph Campbell & Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero’s Journey, Wikipedia